Spring Questions: Linebacker

A quartet of questions regarding Notre Dame's linebackers heading into spring ball 2015.

Below is the seventh of 11 columns previewing head coach Brian Kelly's sixth spring session in South Bend.

The questions are pertinent. The initial answers? Well, they're one man's opinion -- One man using logic and recent history as his guide.

An oral history of Jarrett Grace's recovery from a gruesome leg injury (multiple breaks, nearly a month in the hospital) suffered on Oct. 5, 2013 is as follows:

Oct. 2013 -- Surgery was successful
March 2014 -- Slow progress, remains out of contact
June 2014 -- We'll be aggressive in our approach
August 2014 -- Much closer than we thought he could be
Sept. 2014 -- He's re-learning how to strike his foot to the ground
Oct. 2014 -- He's still re-learning the foot strike
Nov. 2014 -- He's still re-learning the foot strike
Dec. 2014 -- He's taking contact in practice
Feb. 2015 -- Posted a vertical jump of 28 inches
March 2015 -- ??

As noted previously, Grace's progress between September 2014 and today appears the greatest comeback since Lazarus rose from the dead…

-- February updates on Grace's replacement and 2014 team MVP Joe Schmidt weren't altogether positive, nor were they unexpected. Schmidt was projected as not likely to take contact in the spring following a dislocated and broken ankle suffered in early November against Navy, and that remains the case.

Kelly noted on National Signing Day that Schmidt's protective boot was removed around mid-January, that he was in the midst of rehab, but that like nose tackle Jarron Jones, he wasn't going to be ready for spring ball.

Both Schmidt and Grace are expected back for a fifth-season of eligibility in 2015, official announcements notwithstanding. (Speaking of which, what about Ben Councell?)

A numbers crunch remains imminent, but there's no chance Schmidt isn't on the 2015 roster and Grace's only possible omission would be injury-related.

Assuming Schmidt is withheld from contact, and that Grace takes contact on a regular basis, where does that leave sophomore middle linebacker Nyles Morgan? If each of the three is expected to be at full strength by August camp (Morgan is not hurt), it behooves the defensive staff -- including unofficial new linebackers coach Mike Elston -- to seriously consider a move of one member of the trio to the weak side role, currently manned by Jaylon Smith.

Smith could then shift outside to the strong side, but where does that leave up-and-coming junior James Onwualu? If Smith remains on the weak side to allow Onwualu to develop on the strong side, where does that place either Schmidt or Morgan (or presumed backup Grace)?

Can Morgan move to the strong side to compete against or in tandem with Onwualu? Could Schmidt receive aid in the middle from Grace, with Smith backed on the weak side by sophomore Greer Martini?

The option above seems the most seamless for the staff in terms of forging a solid two deep, albeit with one exception: Morgan's future is likely in the middle -- he needs field and classroom work to that end.

Stay tuned.

One middle linebacker competitor not likely to play a lead role from scrimmage next fall is early enrollee Te'Von Coney. Nevertheless, the six-foot-one, 222-pounder from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., could benefit greatly from his early assimilation to the detailed, mind-taxing defensive operation, one that flourished with veteran leadership but floundered when rookies ruled the roost last fall.

A likely redshirt candidate (unless he excels on special teams), Coney has a six-week, 15-practice internship available to him from the two human beings best-equipped to teach him the position: defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and injured MVP Joe Schmidt.

Invaluable backup reps (and thus, myriad mistakes) should be part of Coney's plan this spring as Grace works his way back and Schmidt cedes his spot between the lines.

Less than 24 months ago, recent Irish signees Doug Randolph and Michael Deeb represented part of Notre Dame's future at linebacker. Now at the outset of a third spring session and two football seasons later, Randolph has played only on special teams -- and only in November 2014 -- and Deeb only when every available body was otherwise lost among Notre Dame's inside linebacking corps during a public flogging on the Los Angeles Coliseum's turf.

It's clear the dreaded junior-year squeeze has been applied to the pair (both veteran and younger talent rank above them on the depth chart) and as a result, both must win special teams roles to be a part of the staff plans going forward.

Randolph has battled shoulder injuries to date while Deeb wore a massive contraption on his right elbow for most of last season on the Irish sidelines. (Kelly however noted that Deeb was in good health when asked last November.)

Both technically have three seasons of eligibility remaining, but both need to prove they can be upwardly mobile to realize that potential reward.

It's time for Randolph and Deeb to get a foot in the door.

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